Since 1983, the renowned Sutra Foundation has strived to promote the cultural diversity and vibrancy of Malaysian dance by grooming talented Malaysian dancers to perform inspiring and original local works. This month, the foundation is proud to present its latest performance, ‘Dancing Sutra’ that will be part of the second edition of the Blossom Arts Festival Malaysia.
Scheduled to take place at Wisma MCA on August 26, this highly-anticipated performance was specially commissioned and directed by the dance theatre’s artistic director and founder, Datuk Ramli Ibrahim. The Peak interviews the Indian classical dance maestro on his hopes for the future of the performing arts industry in Malaysia.
Your career has been all about promoting the cultural diversity and vibrancy of Malaysian dance. Why?
Kuala Lumpur is the most culturally and racially diverse city in Southeast Asia. Our way of life is so varied, colourful and vibrant. The fact that Sutra dancers are of Indian, Chinese, Malay and mixed parentage also speak eloquently of the liberal arts outlook of Malaysian citizens. This multicultural and multiracial participation acts as a counter to the rigid and extremist views that are increasingly gaining mileage in our midst. At the same time, the arts are an effective way of teaching the audience on how to think and behave with more awareness and sensitivity. It is a way to open our minds and broaden our horizons.
What motivates you to continue on this path?
I have often said that I did not choose to dance…. it chose me. I believe that dance is a potent medium since it is visual and appeals to the heart and mind. Through the poetry of dance, a dancer is able to engage with the highest nature of man while transforming mankind’s darker instincts that stem from war, hate, petty greed and suspicion into beauty and truth.
From your experience, what is it about the Blossom Arts Festival Malaysia that appeals to you the most?
I have often thought that Kuala Lumpur needs a cultural brand; our local cultural and artistic activities are too dispersed and need curatorial focus. Kuala Lumpur might be an international business hub but what it truly needs is an Arts Festival — and not another shopping mall. The Blossom Arts Festival is a great start and I hope it will continue to bring in more local and international artistic talents. I am also pleased that the productions have been curated to take on diverse genres that are multicultural and multiracial. This is a right move from the organisers, especially since it is happening during the same month as our National Day celebrations.
Why is it so important for Malaysians to support this festival?
The local arts and culture scene needs support from the public and this festival serves as a step in the right direction towards making this happen. During these difficult times, it almost seems as though our arts and culture industry has been abandoned. Artists need funding and a platform to perform and showcase their craft. While making money is indeed important, we also need patronage especially if support from the government is unavailable. This is even preferable since we shouldn’t have to depend on any political or economic systems just to survive. Most of the indexes used by these systems to judge the arts are ridiculously unworkable. We need to cultivate and appeal to individual Malaysians to support this festival as it brings many sincere and hardworking artists to share their artistic outpourings and efforts with the audiences, which in turn helps to elevate our quality of life. Arts and culture needs audiences… and this is especially true with culture, because it is only through the works of artists such as dancers and musicians, painters and poets that one is able to reflect on their own life’s journey.
What can you tell us about your upcoming performance, Dancing Sutra?
It will be performed in the Indian classical dance style of odissi, which is a genre of Indian classical dance that Sutra is renowned for not just in Malaysia but also abroad. Odissi has been performed by Sutra for the last 30 years. As for Dancing Sutra, it will will be performed by more than 20 senior and junior Sutra dancers and will showcase the best of our repertoire. So, for those who still have not had an opportunity to witness this exquisite dance style which has taken the world by storm, this upcoming performance is a good place to start.
Since its inception in 1983, Sutra has always espoused a broad-based cultural perspective and is one of the most active cultural institutions that promote the liberal cultural policy of the nation. As a high-profile dance institution in Malaysia and its most internationally visible touring dance company, which has performed in more than 150 cities around the world, Sutra is Malaysia’s effective cultural ambassador. I am delighted that Blossom Arts Festival has chosen Sutra as one of the highlights of this month-long festival, and hope that more audiences from all walks of life would be able to open their hearts to enjoy this exquisite Indian classical dance style.
One of the most important roles of culture and arts is that it acts as antidote and serves as an effective moderating influence. This is especially important with the current wave of detrimental extremist views that have plagued not just the world but also our nation. This performance also represents a culturally diverse multi-racial and multicultural manifestations of Malaysian culture which also works well with the ‘Negara-ku’ theme of this year’s Festival.
Who are the talents involved and what are their roles in this performance?
The junior dancers are from our Dance Outreach programs that are conducted at Tamil schools located in Kajang and Sg Choh (Rawang). They range from 10 years old and upwards. The younger dancers represent the next generation of Sutra dancers and are the upcoming stars of the future.
How is this performance different than the ones that have previously been staged at the Sutra Foundation?
The stage at the MCA Hall is very big, so we needed to do a lot of re-choreographing and re-arrangement of the dance compositions to not only accommodate more dancers but also to relate with the larger space. We will also be making full use of the LED screen located at the back of the stage to augment the presentation of the work, and this will be done by our award-winning lighting designer, Sivarajah Natarajan. The final performance in Dancing Sutra is our piece de resistance because it pays homage to Surya (The Sun). I feel that this performance will really appeal to the audience, especially those who have never seen odissi performed by Sutra dancers.
What do you hope that the audience will feel after watching this performance?
I have always felt that any good, authentic performance will appeal to any audience. Indian dance is already a big thing in China. We recently performed for the World Chinese Youth Festival and, afterwards, many of the Indian classical dancers from China came over to congratulate us. In fact, some of our best dancers at Sutra are either Chinese or of mixed Chinese-Indian parentage.
After so many years of performing, do you still get pre-performance jitters?
Yes, especially, now as I get older… I have doubts that I am able to do some of the lifts and execution of the dance, which demand the athleticism of a young dancer. However, I guess you can say that this comes with the territory.
A few years ago, you did a talk with TEDxKL that focused on the philosophy embodied in Indian classical dance. What was the most interesting feedback that you received after the event?
I met some people who had thought that dancers should only be seen and not heard. So for them, it was somewhat of an eye-opening experience to hear me speak about the inner philosophy and knowledge embodied within the Indian classical dance. The feedback was very positive and some were reaffirmed by the timeless wisdom that dance can be so much more than just mere entertainment.
When it comes to Malaysia’s performing arts scene, what do you think needs to happen in order to elevate this industry?
I think there is no credible policy, political will or sustainable infrastructure that will allow performing arts to be ‘exploited’ positively and fully as a genuine player in nation-building and as an industry. The lackluster track-record of the Ministry of Arts & Culture to cultivate all this is already well known among artists and this is either because they lack vision or their vision is just too narrow. There is also no passion — let alone love or commitment — among the bureaucrats who run these art institutions. Above all else, there is no funding to sustain the arts which has been especially evident over these past few years! This is one of the main reasons we welcome the initiative of the Blossom Arts Festival which is providing a space and platform for us to do all this… albeit temporarily. I also think there should be more synergic efforts from the Ministry of Education to introduce the cultivation of Arts and Culture as a serious subject in both primary and secondary school.
How else can the public help to elevate the performing arts industry?
I have never underestimated our audience; they are generally ready to be challenged by a new experience. Then again, Indian classical dance can hardly be described as something entirely new. However, the exposure to this genre has been limited and polarised. Dance is something that needs to be experienced, it demands the effort of partaking experientially. Looking at a video or reading up about it is not sufficient to engage one’s total sensorial faculties. Audiences must give themselves a chance to experience the joy of Indian classical dance. Sutra is also always looking for new and younger audiences, and the Blossom Arts Festival is a great opportunity for us to engage with this audience.